Fast Company

Strategic Partnerships That Soar

Part V: The Growth of a Brand. Karen Post continues to offer branding lessons from a social-networking start-up.

If you've just joined us, Oddpodz is a new online community for creative doers and problem solvers. Founder and branding expert Karen Post, who writes a regular column for fastcompany.com, brings you the play by play of a startup brand.

When I started this series, I promised un-candy coated stories and honest hard lessons learned on my journey to start-up success.

This is not easy

I have many, many sleepless nights thinking about everything my company is doing and all that we still need to do, within the confines of our limited financial and human resources. I see new competition, I field hard and fast questions from investors, and I come up against cold shoulders from companies my fledgling wants to do things with, because it is a young, unproven kid on the block.

No dull moments here

Even with all the stress and anxiety, I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. If you are nurturing a start-up or thinking about one, here's the deal -- it's a scary, hard and character building process. Don't give up, don't freak out. Most of the great brands went through this, too. It's not what hits you in the head, it's how you deal with it and whether you can keep standing.

In this column, I'm going to share realities and solutions that can keep you moving towards building your brand and securing and leveraging smart, strategic partners to achieve your goals.

Reality #1

It is highly likely that you will try to do too much at once, especially if you have a leadership style like mine: productive, intense and overachieving. Pressures will surround you. A common outcome is creating complications while aiming to please everyone.

Solution

Revisit your brand essence and business plan weekly. Stay on brand, but include being flexible as a key growth strategy. You will learn and gather insights from your market. Apply what works and don't be afraid to make an occasional u-turn.

Reality #2

As a brand and business leader in your start-up organization you have to focus on how to get from A to B in the most efficient and fastest manner. Cash and time are precious. And every thing takes longer than you think.

Solution

Identify and reach out to influential strategic partners before you need them. The process of securing them will take time, and the bigger the company the more time it will take.

Reality #3

Your sales skills will be tested as a start-up. Unless you start with a bunch of cash, you will likely be selling using the chicken and egg method. This is not unethical -- it allows you to hone your product offering while in development to meet the needs of your customers. You are selling an unproven idea and the future straight from your crystal ball.

Solution

Accept this notion, with full and complete belief in your dream. Believe you have already achieved -- and that everyone you sell to is darn lucky -- they got selected to participate in your opportunity. Beyond your conviction, you must have credible tools that support your story, your vision and your brand.

Our tools included

  • A concise PowerPoint presentation
  • A press kit and collection of past press placements
  • A tight, short elevator pitch that can be adapted to different audiences
  • Professional graphics
  • And most of all, an attitude of positive, grounded, self-confident poise

With this formula, Oddpodz has successfully scored some incredible strategic partners. I will discuss two of them from first hand experience and then tap into the valuable insights of a fellow Social Network CEO, Michael Sanchez of Cafemom.com.

An affinity partnership

Back in October, Fast Company along with other forward thinking organizations sponsored the Sarasota International Design Summit. The event was billed as a summit for transforming people, places and products through ideas, design and innovation. This was Oddpodz's first public outing as a sponsor. We underwrote the giveaway bags and gifted all attendees with one our branded T-shirts. It was a great investment of time and money. Not only did we make tremendous new networking contacts, but we were also introduced to Bill Strickland, Chief Executive Officer of Manchester Bidwell Corporation (MBC,) a consortium of organizations that use the concepts of creative learning, empowerment and transformation to work with inner city at-risk youth. Bill was the opening keynote speaker. After hearing his inspiring story and invitation for any one in audience to make the trip to Pittsburgh, PA, to witness his organization's success -- a strategic partner light went off in my head -- this was someone I needed to reach out to.

Here is an organization with history of accomplishment. They have a large contingency base of students, staff, alumni, volunteers and supporters and a complimentary vision of supporting and growing creative minds.

Within 30 days, I was on a plane to meet with Bill Strickland and team. In advance, I emailed him a brief on what Oddpodz was, our plans, and some general ideas on how we could help each other reach our respective goals. This is a key ingredient to getting a new strategic partner meeting set up, and ultimately securing a partnership.

Before we met, I thought through what Oddpodz needed and what I believed MBC needed. These needs became the outline for my presentation.

  • MBC has a loyal community of creative doers and supporters -- Oddpodz needs to reach this market.
  • MBC has an inspiring story, and needs to tell it to further its own cause --We are an international, new media channel, a voice to the world.
  • As a non-profit enterprise, MBC needs to develop new sources of funding --We are a new player in a hot category (social networking,) and as we succeed we will be in a position to financially help further support its initiatives.

At the end of the day, we reached an agreement -- a true strategic partnership. We both vowed to help each other. Oddpodz made a revenue share and on going financial commitment. MBC committed to open new doors and help introduce our social network to their communities. We both agreed to cross-promote our messages and programs.

A geographic partnership

Angels do more than invest in startups. Just ask Chris Miller, the executive director of The Creative Coast Initiative, a destination branding initiative that aims to build a stronger business, lifestyle and creative economy in Savannah, Georgia.

It all started with an article I wrote for FastCompany.com two years ago. Which lead to a client, who became a great friend and also an investor in Oddpodz. Through a relative, she had heard about an ambitious creative project in Savannah and knowing Oddpodz's goal to build a nation of creatives, she arranged a meeting. A pivotal conference it was. Sixty days later Oddpodz moved from Tampa, FL to establish our national headquarters in the Creative Coast, and we now have a super strategic partner.

Like our affinity partner MBC this too was about strategic fit and the ability to deliver on promises from both partners. With The Creative Coast Initiative, we are in the center of a very hip, historically rich, eclectic and transforming environment. They offered incentives like office space, on a historic site built in the 1700's that will be revitalized and designed by a team of SCAD (Savannah Collage of Art and Design) students. We will be surrounded by other creative people and emerging companies. We will designate a section of the Muzeum (Oddpodz online destination that hosts our social network) to creative places and spaces. Savannah will be prominently featured here and also have naming rights for this room. We will also co-brand on and off-line events and cross-promote our programs.

In conclusion, I've asked Michael Sanchez, CEO of Cafemom for his advice on strategic partnerships. Cafemom is also a new social network dedicated to moms. They are not a pure start-up -- Cafemom was started by CMI Marketing, which also runs ClubMom (CMI), another leading website and loyalty company for moms. CMI was founded in 1999 by Meredith Vieira, Andrew Shue (actor and social activist,) and Michael Sanchez. The irony is there is no big difference in Sanchez's approach versus our smaller start-up company's approach. His company just has bigger cash budgets to put in the deal as well as a wider network of existing relationships.

What makes a successful strategic partnership for you?

Michael's response: "Any time we strike a strategic partnership, we are making a commitment of time, energy, and added complexity to the company. This means that we should be very selective about partnerships and believe that they will help us materially advance the ball on one or more of our key objectives:

  1. Deliver a great experience to our mom members
  2. Drive new members to cafemom
  3. Increase our revenues
  4. Help us with people, recruiting, PR strategies and other goals"

He continued: "A partnership means delivering value to our moms or any network of members. In return you always want to make sure expectations are set clearly and all parties can live up to their end of the bargain. The final point is that it is important to trust the partners and enjoy working with them. Even the best partnerships will have their ups and downs, so trust helps both sides be committed even when plans change."

Is there anything you've learned from a less than perfect partnership?

"Yes, we pulled out of a deal at the last minute, right before our launch. The reason: we weren't fully aligned on goals, execution, plans, etc.

We identified an organization that had a channel to reach our market. In the partnership development, the deal made strategic sense for both of us. That said, it was clear once we moved into implementation, the other company wasn't as aligned internally as it needed to be -- it lacked the support and resources necessary for the partnership to proceed smoothly. The lesson here, we hadn't spent enough time together to really understand each other's goals and to build the level of trust required to move ahead.

Rather than rush it, we all agreed to hold off for a while. We are planning to revisit the opportunity in the near future and see if we can spend the necessary time together to work through all of the issues and get to a place where we can make this deal a huge home run for both parties."

Reality #4

Social networking is a fast moving space. Unexpected things will happen. Expectations may sound the same in planning conversations, but can hugely differ in the real world of execution.

Solution

When this happens, partners need to be flexible enough to not trash the original investment of time and the goal of working together to move all parties forward. Whether you are a pure start-up like Oddpodz or better resource-fueled like Cafemom, partnership outcomes must be aligned and accountable deliverables clarified in a written agreement.

Strategic partners can play a tremendous role in aiding a social network, a business and a brand grow. Think creatively, honor your brand essence, and understand all parties' goals.

Dream, focus, stay resilient, have fun, do what you love and make things happen! And of course, Brand On!

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